...early retirement and education aren't "safety valves"...
At 8.3%, "headline" unemployment represents 1 in 8 would-be workers without jobs. Furthermore, we know that we're seeing not just high unemployment but also a big drop in the size of the labor force. That is, we've observed a big drop in the unemployment-population ratio.
OK, but isn't this just youth staying in school longer? And baby boomers who are retiring, or retiring early? After all, the unemployment rate for "prime" workers is 7.2%, rather lower than the July 2012 average of 8.3%. And if we're thinking of the impact on families -- kids -- high "primer earner" unemployment is more worrisome than that at the young and old ends of the age spectrum.
Now for the population as a whole employment has fallen more than unemployment has risen. Rephrased, the non-participation [in the labor force] rate rose, from 33.9% in January 2004-December 2006 to 36.2% over the 6 months ending in July 2012, a 2.3% rise. Relative to the base (66.1%) that's equivalent to a 3.5% rise in unemployment. If we add that to the headline rate we get 11.8%.
This sort of shift doesn't typify previous recessions. But perhaps this time around it's not the recession but long-term trends that happen to be showing up now. [See the graph below on the long-term trend.] In particular, we've far more youth in higher education, and baby boomers are in their early 60s. So it could be that large numbers of younger individuals are staying in school -- or, having grim job prospects, are enrolling in community colleges en masse. Meanwhile, for the boomers, while retiring before age 65 may be painful, it's feasible. And government workers and others can qualify for pensions before age 65, and don't have to wait on social security.
Unfortunately, the data show it's not just boomers and students: the shift for the prime age workers (age 25-54) is in fact is larger than that for the population as a whole. We're not in fact seeing a boom in schooling and early retirements.
In particular, during the bubble era 2004-7 prime age labor force participation rose by 1.4 percentage points, from a peak of 78.7% to 80.3%, and averaged 79.4% over January 2004-December 2006; over the last 6 months, through July 2012, it's averaged 75.7%. That's a drop of 3.7% (and an equivalent rise in the non-participation rate). Doing the same arithmetic leads to an adjusted unemployment rate of 11.9%. At one level it's not surprising; prime age workers (25-54) are a large proportion of the standard labor force (age 16-64), so the averages can't diverge all that much. Still, I'd hoped otherwise. But early retirement and education aren't "safety valves" that mute the impact of the Great Recession. That's not the case